Here’s a Great Excuse to Turn Video Off in Zooms
Keep your pajamas on and help save the planet by citing this new study
Jammies have been my primary work attire the past year, and I’ve got Boris Johnson hair most days until an oft-delayed evening shower. For those reasons, plus my undiagnosed but totally legit allergy to video conferencing, I almost never turn on my video camera during Zoom sessions.
But now there’s a much more noble excuse to go audio-only: Videoconferencing is far worse for the environment than a conventional phone call.
Delivering each byte of data over the internet requires a bit more electricity, whose production draws on water and land resources and emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming (2020 tied for the warmest year on record, btw). That’s not news, but in a new study, scientists at MIT and Purdue and Yale universities estimated the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of internet data transmission via Zoom, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and several other platforms and apps including gaming and movie streaming.
They all contribute to our collective environmental footprint, but only one induces the anxiety of being judged for our personal appearance and the lack of heady books in the background.
An hour of videoconferencing uses up to three gallons of water, requires a patch of land the size of an iPad Mini, and emits up to 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, the researchers say. By comparison, a gallon of gas burned by a typical car emits some 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide.
Those numbers may seem small, but consider this: An audio-only web call can slash these footprints by 96%, the researchers estimate.
All internet traffic affects the environment, of course, and an individual’s contribution by sending an email or downloading a file is modest compared to, say, traversing the country in a private jet, the impact has risen since the dawn of the internet and will continue to increase as the global economy becomes ever-more digital.
The findings, to be published in the April issue of the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling, also reveal that streaming movies in standard definition (horrors!) lowers your environmental footprint by 86% compared to high-definition.
Incremental reductions in video use — a little by you, a little by someone else — could have a notable collective impact, the thinking goes, now that so many more people are working (and playing) from home. Overall internet data traffic jumped 15% or more during lockdowns last spring and remains higher compared to the pre-pandemic era. All this internet traffic now accounts for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the scientists say.
If the trend of higher data use continues through 2021, sequestering the additional carbon would require a 71,600-square-mile forest, larger than North Dakota, the researchers calculate. It would use enough water to fill 300,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and a land area the size of Los Angeles.
It’s your call
The scientists caution that the figures are all estimates, using data from the United States, the UK, China, France, Germany, India, Japan and a half-dozen other countries.
Your mileage may vary based on the country in which you live. In the United States, the carbon footprint of processing and transmitting internet data is 9% higher than the median of the countries studied, while water and land footprints are lower, for example.
“These are the best estimates given the available data,” says study team member Roshanak Nateghi, PhD, a Purdue assistant professor of industrial engineering. “In view of these reported surges, there is a hope now for higher transparency to guide policy.”
You can, of course, set your own policy. Banning video now and then might constitute a pretty modest effect on the health of the planet, but it can allow you to avoid the stress of getting dressed and fixing your hair and selecting a backdrop of books you’ve never read.